Posted by The Futility Monster on August 24, 2010 @ 11:47
Yes. It is.
To me, the beauty of the American political system is in its enforced renewal. Every two years, the populist House has to be re-mandated. It is this very nature that makes it populist. Meanwhile, their ultimate leader and national figurehead, the President, gets a little longer, but is not allowed to stick around for more than eight years, lest he (not yet a she) start to get ideas above his station, and become a little too attached to the trappings of office.
There aren’t many other Western political systems that have such rigorous time and term limits on everything. The rest of us, especially Westminster inspired systems, have a lot more flexibility regarding the calling of elections. And that’s where the problem begins.
Take Australia. In January, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd looked in an extremely powerful position. The opposition had just replaced its leader, in a fractious contest that split the party down the middle. His personal approval ratings were sky high. The opposition controlled Senate had just blocked a key plank of his legislation – environmental regulation – for the second time. This opened the door for Rudd to engage in some constitutional jiggery-pokery: a “double dissolution” election, which, most probably, would have resulted in a sweeping Labour victory in both chambers of the Parliament.
Instead, he decides to tough it out. And then sees everything go wrong, getting chucked out and replaced by Julia Gillard.
Julia Gillard doesn’t want to repeat Rudd’s mistake. While the polls see her arrival as positive, and the Labor Party improves its standing, she decides to seize upon the honeymoon and go straight to that election. The net result: Labor on the brink, courtesy of a terrible, back-biting campaign, and an opposition that had had eight months to prepare for this very moment.
Then there’s Gordon Brown: clinging on by his fingernails till the very last moment. If only he’d gone straight away, like so many commentators (including me) thought he should. His first job, after accepting the invitation of the Queen to be the Prime Minister, should have been to say, “And now I’d like an election to mandate this change”. He didn’t. He didn’t want to be one of the shortest ever PMs. And yet all the omens were good for them. Tories still not ready. Old election boundaries. Honeymoon period. The rest is history.
Recent evidence seems to be that politicians are not very good at choosing the timing of elections. They either worry that they’re about to sign their own death warrant, or are hopelessly optimistic about what’s lurking around the corner.
Since we should only trust politicians as much as is necessary, we should do them all a favour and back the idea of fixed election dates. Let’s take the stress off them, and in return, remove a major element of political fiddling from the system.
Though I still think five years is too long…
Posted in Musings | Tagged: Australian politics, comparative legislatures, elections, fixed term parliaments, Gordon Brown, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, political bravery, political science, populism, US politics | 2 Comments »
Posted by The Futility Monster on August 7, 2010 @ 17:57
This particular mandate caused a lot more problems though...
A post on politicalbetting.com this morning by the always excellent David Herdson about the tedium of the Labour leadership contest got me thinking.
David’s point was that the contenders just aren’t really talking about anything. They can all do platitude, but none of them is seriously raising a genuine policy agenda for what they would advance as an alternative during their opposition wilderness. It’s a fair point, but Tory observers need to recall that about the only substantive thing David Cameron said in his campaign was to bring the Conservative Party out of the EPP grouping in the EU Parliament…
But there is a serious downside to not saying anything during a campaign. And I mean any campaign. It is the question of mandates.
Mention “mandate” to Joe and Joetta Public and I suspect the eyes would glaze over. But mandates have a crucial place in the centre of a democratic system; one of these things that we acknowledge and accept without ever truly appreciating what they’re all about.
By talking about an issue, talking about it openly, publicly, and engaging in serious debate in the subject, you get a grudging appreciation from people that “x” is what you want to do about the issue. And then, if you happen to win said election, all of a sudden you have a mandate for that topic. Regardless of whether or not people were really voting for you with that particular issue in mind.
The voters have spoken, you can say. I have legitimacy to carry out my agenda. I have the endorsement of the public/my organisation/my trade union, whatever, to carry out these changes.
Mandates are an essential part of democracy. They are accepted by people without truly realising the underlying process. The present coalition government sort of has a mandate to carry out their rather radical agenda (though how radical it is remains to be seen over what the result of various reviews are) because the partners achieved a very significant backing at the polls compared to all previous governments.
The winner of the Labour leadership race will have authority as the winner of the contest. They will have authority to lead the party in whatever direction they wish.
But, because no one is really prepared to put their neck on the line, they’re not going to have a proper mandate for any of the pet projects they wanted to pursue. While it’s a useful strategy if you don’t want to frighten the horses, if you want to make a major change, by silencing critics with the weight of your ringing democratic endorsement, you really do need a thumping great mandate.
Sometimes politicians have to take risks with these things. The risk is they’ll lose the election by standing out. The reward, however, is that if you can win, and have your prior agenda in place, you’re going to get a lot more acceptance for whatever it is you want to do.
That’s supposed to be what elections are all about.
Posted in Musings | Tagged: electoral legitimacy, legitimacy, mandates, political narrative, political science | Leave a Comment »